Five Years Later: Changes under Pope Francis are Revealing his “Jesuit DNA”

By William Bole

March 5, 2018 — The story is often told: Pope Francis is on a return flight to Rome, following the World Youth Day celebration in Rio de Janeiro. He walks back to the press compartment and surprises everyone with an impromptu news conference, standing in the aisle for 81 minutes and answering every question thrown at him by reporters. Asked about homosexuality, the pope makes what would become his emblematic utterance: “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?”

Pope Francis during his press conference aboard his flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

Seldom told — and less understood — is something else Francis said during that spontaneous exchange. “And I think like a Jesuit,” he explained.

It has been five years since white smoke wafted from a tiny chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, signaling that the papal conclave had chosen a new successor of St. Peter, first Bishop of Rome. Just over an hour later, a little-known Argentine cardinal named Jorge Mario Bergoglio appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica — the first Jesuit pope, the first pope to hail from the Americas, and the first to take the name “Francis.”

For a few years, there was constant debate among religious pundits as to whether this approachable pope with a message of mercy had as yet brought change and reform to Catholic life worldwide. Father Timothy P. Kesicki, SJ, president of the Washington-based Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, points out that to this day, “He hasn’t changed one definitive teaching of the church.” Yet, Fr. Kesicki and many others are now quick to add that the pope who thinks like a Jesuit has changed, perhaps forever, the way a universal pontiff carries out his ministry, and his pastoral spirit has proved infectious for untold numbers of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Pope Francis greets Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ.

"Pope Francis tells us in Amoris Laetitia that we should not water down the Gospel of mercy," says Fr. James Keenan, SJ, professor of theological ethics at Boston College. "In these five years, he has brought in an uncompromising way the Lord's mercy front and center and effectively challenges each of us to allow the Gospel to heal, uplift and save us. For so many people this emphasis on mercy refreshes not only a person's soul, but the Church herself."

He is pontificating in a new key, making it clear that a fundamental task of the faithful is not so much to follow rules but to discern what God is calling them to do. He is altering the culture of the clergy, steering away from what he has named as “clericalism” (which dwells on priestly status and authority) and toward an ethic of service (Francis says the church’s shepherds must have the “smell of the sheep,” always staying close to the People of God).

Pope Francis greets an elderly woman in Asunción, Paraguay. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

He has energized countless people, religious and lay, Jesuits and their many collaborators, who have gravitated toward what Francis likes to call “the periphery,” the social margins. He has furnished the example of a pope “who is not untouchable, who is open to criticism, open to changing his mind,” and who wants to lead “a more human church,” says Father Gustavo Morello, SJ, a sociology professor at Boston College and author of “The Catholic Church and Argentina’s Dirty War” (Oxford, 2015).

Fr. Gustavo Morello, SJ, says Pope Francis wants to lead “a more human church.” (Gary Gilbert/Boston College) 

All of that and more is traceable to what some call Francis’ “Jesuit DNA,” which is grounded in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who sought to promote self-awareness, a joyful sense of freedom and a willingness to take risks.

"Perhaps the greatest impact that Pope Francis has had on the Church's understanding of spirituality over the past five years is his constant reminder, both in his preaching and in his personal witness, that contemplation and action are inextricably linked," says Fr. George Witt, director of the Office of Ignatian Spirituality for the East Coast provinces. "He insists, echoing St. Ignatius Loyola, that the fruit of contemplation is not simply an interior sense of connection with God, but an outpouring of active love in the world. And he models this for us in beautiful and compelling fashion."

On March 13, 2013, the Jesuit Curia in Rome happened to be holding a training session for new leaders of English-speaking Jesuit provinces around the world — just as the papal conclave was voting. Father Peter Bisson, SJ, who had recently become head of the English Canada Province, was there and recalls that early in the evening, someone yelled out, “White smoke!” He and others ran out to St. Peter’s Square, where they were amazed to see a fellow member of the Society of Jesus emerge onto the balcony. The 266th pope immediately departed from custom: rather than blessing the pilgrims first, he asked them to take a moment to silently pray for him and ask God to bless his papacy. After that, he gave the traditional papal blessing. Standing in the square, Fr. Bisson thought to himself, Something new is here.

Pope Francis greets Fr. Peter Bisson, SJ, at the Jesuits' General Congregation 36. 

The next day, Pope Francis picked up a phone and called the Jesuit Curia. “This is Pope Francis. May I speak to Fr. General?” he asked a flustered receptionist, who was a little incredulous. Francis had to convince the man that it was really the pope calling, not a prankster. Switched eventually to the office of Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, SJ, then-Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Francis began making arrangements for the two to meet — not at the Apostolic Palace, where popes have traditionally resided, but at a residence for visiting clergy and lay people where he stayed during the conclave. It was an early indication that Pope Francis planned to decamp from the sprawling papal apartment and move into the simpler quarters of the guesthouse, on the edge of Vatican City. It’s where he continues to live.

Pope Francis with Father Adolfo Nicolás, SJ, then-superior general of the Society of Jesus, in Rome. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

If there are just a few keywords of this papacy, one of them is surely “periphery.” Another is “discernment.” Francis the Jesuit is constantly seeking to discern how God is working in his life, and as pope, he is nurturing that kind of spiritual discernment at all levels of the church, notes Fr. Bisson. “How is the spirit moving among us? Where is the joy? Where is the fear? And what is the will of the Lord?” the provincial says, relating some Ignatian-style questions for discernment. That’s how Jesuits and others steeped in this tradition characteristically seek to “find God in all things.” As for Francis, Fr. Bisson adds: “He’s not afraid of finding God in unexpected places. He expects to find God in those places,” especially on the margins.

Pope Francis attends a Lenten retreat with members of the Roman Curia. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters) 

“Pope Francis’ image of the Church as a field hospital challenges the Society of Jesus to keep our eyes and hearts always open to the needs of the wounded and marginalized in our world,” said Fr. John Cecero, SJ, provincial of the USA Northeast Province. “Every Jesuit ministry, no matter how mainstream or well known, must ask itself to what extent it is serving these people and forming others to do the same. This vision and perspective is a tonic antidote to the pride and self-absorption that can distract us Jesuits and our colleagues from serving Christ and the Church according to the mind of Ignatius himself.” 

Francis says, “The Jesuit must be a master of discernment, for himself and others.” He made that comment when he met with 31 Jesuits based in Myanmar during his visit to that country and Bangladesh in late November and early December of this past year. “Think of St. Peter Claver,” the pope said, referring to the 17th century Spanish Jesuit and missionary. “He knew how to discern and knew that God wanted him to spend his life among the black slaves. Meanwhile some esteemed theologians were discussing whether or not they had a soul.”

Pope Francis with Jesuits in Myanmar in 2017.

During that November 29 conversation, held in the long, narrow chapel of the archbishop’s house in Yangon, a Jesuit asked why the pope always finds time to meet with fellow Jesuits during his far-flung travels. Francis replied that he does so “not to forget that I am a missionary,” to which he added, provoking laughs — “and that I must convert sinners!”

Fr. Kesicki explains that every religious order has its own charism, its way of carrying out the church’s work. No small part of the Jesuit charism is that it’s a missionary order, its members “ready to go anywhere in the world to help form souls,” the priest says. “As a Jesuit, you go out to the periphery. You go out to the poor, the disenfranchised, refugees, those disaffected by the church. You go out to the people. Pope Francis has that missionary spirit. That’s what makes him a Jesuit.”

Pope Francis visits a house in Rome for people with intellectual challenges. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

That the pope is Latin American also throws light on his missionary impulse. “If you’re a Latin American Jesuit, you don’t just wait for people to come into the rectory. You go out to where the people are,” says Fr. Morello, an Argentine who had a pro forma conversation with then-Father Bergoglio during the mid-1980s when he, Fr. Morello, was contemplating his vocation (the future pope was a Jesuit formation rector at the time). “A big part of religiosity doesn’t happen in church. It happens outside the church, in the public square, in the festivals, processions, in front of landmarks and statues.” In addition, the periphery in Latin America is not some distant land — it’s right there. “It’s not that we should care for the poor. It’s that the church is poor,” Fr. Morello emphasizes. He points out that most Catholics live in developing countries, which means that the option for the poor articulated in Catholic social teaching is to a large extent “an option for the Catholic people, who are mostly poor.”

Here in North America, Father Mario Powell, SJ, was deep in discernment following his priestly ordination in June 2014 at Fordham University in New York. That was 15 months after the white smoke trickled through St. Peter’s Square, and he was thinking of himself as a “Pope Francis Jesuit.” Fr. Powell had started filling out applications for doctoral programs in religious history but was also asking himself: “What am I doing to help other folks who might look like me? How can I help them feel welcomed in our traditional institutions?” Arkansas-born Fr. Powell is African-American, raised in an extended family of Southern Baptists (he converted on his own while in 8th grade at a Catholic school in Los Angeles).

Fr. Mario Powell, SJ, thinks of himself as a "Pope Francis Jesuit." (Regis High School) 

In the end, he pushed aside the Ph.D. applications and took on a fresh challenge as director of REACH (Recruiting Excellence in Academics for Catholic High Schools) at Regis High School in New York. The entirely free program seeks out 5th graders who have high promise as well as high need and helps prepare them to earn a scholarship at a Jesuit high school. Most come from immigrant families, and the Regis team works with them for three years on Saturdays and during the summer.

“It has everything to do with being a Pope Francis Jesuit,” Fr. Powell says of his ministry among these inner-city families. “Are we using the gifts we have for our mission?” The gift he’s alluding to is an elite Jesuit institution like Regis, located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side near Central Park. And the mission, he says, is “always to look to the peripheries, to go there, to unmoor yourself, go into the deep … and allow yourself to be transformed.”

Fr. Scott Pilarz, SJ, current president of Georgetown Prep who will become president of the University of Scranton later this year, briefly spoke with Pope Francis when the Pontiff was in Washington, D.C. in 2015. "Meeting Pope Francis during his D.C. visit was a watershed moment for me and. even more so, for the Georgetown Prep students who were present. In that encounter, and consistently since, the Pope's warmth and authenticity resonate profoundly with people of all ages who are hungry for hope and inspiration."

Gillian Ahlgren is another Catholic whose work has been reshaped by this papacy. A theology professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, she has been struck by the quality and depth of Francis’ one-on-one interactions, even when he moves among throngs of pilgrims like the thousands who turn out for the regular papal audiences. Ahlgren has attended a few of those Vatican audiences, including one in which Francis worked his way to the far end of an immense hall to bless a small child, whose mother broke into tears.

“He communicates his soul, God’s spirit, in encounters,” Ahlgren says, and in his messages to audiences, “he helps you understand the Gospel encounters differently.” 

Gillian Ahlgren at the "Thirst for Peace" conference in Assisi in 2016. 

Inspired by Francis, Ahlgren and Xavier launched in 2014 the Institute for Spirituality and Social Justice. The institute immediately began holding full-day workshops in parishes and schools on Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), which presents his vision of evangelization and calls for “pastoral ministry in a missionary style,” less preoccupied with doctrinal rules than with Christian essentials such as mercy (another Francis keyword). The workshops in English and Spanish were primarily for church ministers, social workers and others in the nonprofit sector, aimed in part at helping them encounter the people they serve “in a deeply meaningful way,” Ahlgren says. Upwards of 3,000 people from both Catholic and Protestant congregations joined in those workshops and subsequent ones focusing on Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, Francis’ 2015 encyclical on ecology.


It’s no accident that two of Francis’ major documents have “joy” in the titles — Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), on marriage and family, and “The Joy of the Gospel.” Fr. Kesicki of the Jesuit Conference notes, “You can’t give witness to Christ risen if you don’t have joy in your heart. And in Francis, you always encounter a joyful man. He never looks beaten down.” Indeed, reflecting on reasons for joy is part of the Spiritual Exercises — another Ignatian trait Francis has carried with him.

Pope Francis greets a child at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters) 

“He is the perfect witness to the Jesuit vocation,” Fr. Kesicki adds. “If you want to know what a Jesuit is, you couldn’t have any better example than Pope Francis.”

William Bole, a journalist in Boston, frequently writes about the Jesuits.

Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit for more information.

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